Content Moderation, Free Speech, and Community

Unlimited dialog makes conversations harder.

Even though I’ve been blogging for 19 years and change, I’m a piker compared to Mike Masnick, who founded TechDirt way back in 1997. He’s been struggling with how to manage a commenting community for a quarter-century now and, unlike most with large platforms, hasn’t simply given up by either shutting down the discourse entirely or just letting it run rampant.

In his latest post on the subject, “Why Moderating Content Actually Does More To Support The Principles Of Free Speech,” he rejects the absolutist principle.

Obviously over the past few years there’s been all of these debates about the content moderation practices of various websites. We’ve written about it a ton, including in our Content Moderation Case Study series (currently on hiatus, but hopefully back soon). The goal of that series was to demonstrate that content moderation is rarely (if ever) about “censoring” speech, and almost always about dealing with extremely challenging decisions that any website has to deal with if they host content from users. Some of that involves legal requirements, some of it involves trying to keep a community focused, some of it involves dealing with spam, and some of it involves just crazy difficult decisions about what kind of community you want.

And yet, there are still those who insist that any forms of content moderation are either censorship or somehow “against the principles of free speech.” That’s the line we keep hearing. Last week in the discussion regarding Elon Musk’s poll about whether or not Twitter “supported” free speech, people kept telling me that the key point was about the “principles of free speech,” rather than what the law says. This discussion also came up recently with regards to the various discussions on cancel culture.

I understand where this impulse comes from — because I had it in the past myself. Over a decade ago I was invited to give a talk to policy people running one of the large user-generated content platforms, and it was chock full of former ACLU/free speech lawyers. And I remember one of them asking me if I had thoughts on when it would be okay for them to remove content. I started to say that it should be avoided at almost all costs… when they began tossing out example after example that began to make me realize that “never” is not an answer that works here. I still recommend listening to a Radiolab episode from a few years ago that does an amazing job laying out the impossible choices when it comes to content moderation. It highlights how not only is “never” not a reasonable option, but how no matter what rules you set, you will be faced with an unfathomable number of cases where the “right” answer or the “right” way to apply a policy is not at all clear.

Honestly, absolutism has never struck me as a reasonable policy for a personal site, which OTB has always been. For platforms that essentially serve as a public accommodation, like Facebook or Twitter, there’s a better argument for it. To a lesser extent, that’s even true of large mainstream media sites that engage a huge audience. (Although, in that case, turning off the comments entirely is likely the best approach.)

OTB has had a commenting policy for a very long time, in an effort to signal to those who wish to participate what behaviors we’d prefer not to see. Because there are only two or three active bloggers at any given time and we’ve got busy day jobs, enforcement is inconsistent at best. But it’s never occurred to me that anyone who isn’t paying to host the site has any right to comment here.

After a short discourse on cancel culture that largely mirrors what Steven Taylor and I have already written here, Masnick hits on a useful analogy:

[C]ontent moderation clearly actually enables more free speech. First, let’s look at the world without any content moderation. A website that has no content moderation but allows anyone to post will fill up with spam. Even this tiny website gets thousands of spam comments a day. Most of them are (thankfully) caught by the layers upon layers of filtering tools we’ve set up.

Would anyone argue that it is “against the principles of free speech” to filter spam? I would hope not.

But once you’ve admitted that it’s okay to filter spam, you’ve already admitted that content moderation is okay — you’re just haggling over how much and where to draw the lines.

We have long employed a spam filter here that, in the last decade or so, has been incredibly good at getting rid of true spam and seldom accidentally flags legitimate commenting. And I think we’d all agree that’s a good thing for the conversation.

Frankly, I’d go further than Masnick here: some actual commenting, including intentional trolling, is actually worse for the community than spam. Posts about ways to make $500 a day working from the house or increase the size of one’s penis with one easy trick are annoying but we’ve all trained ourselves to scroll past those. Most can’t resist engaging with trolls, though, and this quickly derails comment threads.

Masnick follows this with an even more valuable insight:

There’s increasing evidence that when you have a totally freeform venue for free speech, it makes many people hold back and not join in. For all the talk of “cancel culture” that relies on claims that people are somehow “afraid” to speak their minds, they should maybe consider that the problem might not be cancel culture, but that some people don’t want to have to constantly debate their beliefs with every rando who challenges them.

In other words, a full open forum is not all that conducive to “free speech” either, because it’s too much.

Instead, what content moderation does is create spaces where more people can feel free to talk. It creates different communities which aren’t just an open free for all, but are more focused and targeted. This actually ties back into the Section 230 debate as well. As the authors of Section 230 have explained, when they wrote that “The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity” they did not mean that every website should host all of that content itself, but rather that by enabling content moderation, distinct and diverse communities could form. As they explained:

In our view as the law’s authors, this requires that government allow a thousand flowers to bloom—not that a single website has to represent every conceivable point of view. The reason that Section 230 does not require political neutrality, and was never intended to do so, is that it would enforce homogeneity: every website would have the same “neutral” point of view. This is the opposite of true diversity.

To use an obvious example, neither the Democratic National Committee nor the Republican National Committee websites would pass a political neutrality test. Government-compelled speech is not the way to ensure diverse viewpoints. Permitting websites to choose their own viewpoints is.

Section 230 is agnostic about what point of view, if any, a website chooses to adopt; but Section 230 is not the source of legal protection for platforms that wish to express a point of view. Online platforms, no less than offline publishers, have a First Amendment right to express their opinion. When a website expresses its own opinion, it is, with respect to that expression, a content creator and, under Section 230, not protected against liability for that content.

In other words, the concept of free speech should support a diversity of communities — not all speech on every community (or any particular community). And content moderation is what makes that possible.

As has often been noted, OTB is really unusual in that it began as a very Republican-leaning political site that managed, for a variety of reasons, to attract commenters from across the political spectrum. As the site hosts became more critical of—and ultimately left*—the GOP, most of the conservative commenters departed, a cycle that was self-reinforcing because they felt increasingly unwelcome by a comment section that was ever-more dominated by Democrats and progressives. Regardless, even now, Steven and I are to the right of the median site commenter.

Steven and I would both strongly prefer more diversity in the comment sections. Both in terms of the sheer number of people posting and in the range of opinions expressed. Alas, we also want the level of discourse to remain high and, with rare exception, the Republican-leaning commenters we’ve managed to attract in recent years tend to bring in tiresome social media talking points rather than engage in useful discourse.

Regardless, Masnick is right: the value of comment moderation is the ability to maintain a community. While I’d ideally prefer the range of opinions to be broader—and for more conservative opinions to be engaged more thoughtfully—we’ve formed a community here that has very little patience for nonsense.

As Steven noted in a comment thread the other day when a longtime former commenter re-appeared under a new pseudonym, we’ve never banned any commenter for being pro-Trump or expressing any particular value system. I’m open to arguments why Trump’s actions surrounding the 2020 election were actually within bounds or why Rick DeSantis would actually be a much better choice in 2024 than Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. Those views are sufficiently alien to the site hosts and the overwhelming percentage of the commentariat that, if presented well, would inject something useful into the conversation. But we also hold to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that we’re entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.

______________________

*Steven defected after the Palin nomination, voting for Obama in 2008 and I held on through the Trump nomination, voting for Clinton in 2016. The late Doug Mataconis was harder to pin down, tending to be a Libertarian protest voter even though he was always accused of being in the party opposite the commentator.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Blogosphere, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    A thoughtful piece, James, and I appreciate the care you and Steven have put into this site and its comment section. In all my years on the Internet (which is all the years there has been an Internet), I haven’t seen a comment section like this one: moderated with a light touch but somehow avoiding turning into a cesspool.

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  2. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I was just about to say nearly the exact same thing. The comment section of OTB is a beacon of sanity and literacy in a howling wilderness of semi-literate vulgarity and stupidity.

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  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    I endorse the above. I really enjoy and respect the comments. I sometimes try to encourage a more conservative commenter to stop “throwing rocks” and instead say something interesting and valuable.

    There is a certain amount of existential protest that will come out in comment sections like this, though. It’s kind of hard to say no to it.

    Anyway, I thought it relevant to point out a big shift elsewhere. When YouTube first started, the comments there were the worst. I just didn’t read them. Now, I follow a few channels with regular feeds and the comments are quite good, and well-behaved. To be fair, none of them are the slightest bit political.

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  4. Tony W says:

    I don’t think OTB has failed to attract right-leaning commenters because of some sort of political bias, rather I believe that this forum’s commentariat tends to demand people back up their opinions with demonstrable facts and thorough consideration.

    This is something that the Republican party did away with years ago, which, in turn, is why good, intelligent conservatives like yourselves have sought refuge in other candidates and parties.

    I’m not sure where conservatives are supposed to go who have ideas that preserve the great things about our nation while allowing small changes that maintain our dominance in the world – but I think they are welcomed here. In fact, I think in most countries we in the comments section would be viewed as centrist at best, and probably somewhat right-leaning.

    Free speech is such a blessing. Thank you for inviting us into your living room for these chats, I am nearly always better for having read the things written here.

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  5. Tim D. says:

    On free speech and content moderation, the question is whether ‘the principles of free speech’ are best served by something like 8chan (which is a chaotic, hateful mess) or by something like reddit (which uses content moderation to let a wide range of communities blossom). I think the answer is pretty obvious. Anyway, great post!

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  6. Kathy says:

    I’m sure there are people out there who’ll claim spam filters aside from stifling free speech constitute restraint on trade.

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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    we’ve formed a community here that has very little patience for nonsense.

    Hmmmm…. Sounds like cancel culture to me.

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    The truth is that the cesspool comment sections aren’t worth your time to read, though the top line posts maybe of high quality. Clear and fair expectations for those who choose to comment does broaden speech.

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  9. Moosebreath says:

    Interesting post, James. I agree with you on the difficulties in keeping a commenting base which is both generally respectful and diverse in opinions. It is why I come here and I hope you can do all you can to preserve it.

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  10. CSK says:

    CNN, NBC, and CBS don’t allow comments on their site. ABC does, and it generally devolves into juvenile insult-trading after about three comment have been made.

    Lucianne.com always advertised itself as “a salon, not a saloon,” but as long as you’re pro-Trump, you can say any vulgar, bigoted thing you like.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    Let me join the chorus of praise for the OTB comment sections and gratitude to our hosts. Thanks, guys. This really is an exceptionally civil and informative corner of the internet.

    The absence of conservative commenters is a function of the hostile reception they tend to receive. But let’s acknowledge that the hostile reception is a function of the vacuity of so many conservative comments. And the flagship conservative commenters, the Douthats and Stephens, aren’t much better. It really has become what Cleek said – the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily. Buckley at least used to try to wrap some air of gentility around it.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08:

    The absence of conservative commenters is a function of the hostile reception they tend to receive.

    I’m not so sure I agree with the premise. I think there is often a dialog here between conservative and liberal or progressive viewpoints, and a wealth of discussion with viewpoints that are hard to categorize. The only conservative viewpoint that is consistently absent is that of religious conservatives, but that viewpoint has long been absent from primarily intellectual forums regardless of political persuasion.

    I think what James is actually feeling is the absence of Republicans, and in his heart he still equates that with conservatism. But even if that was ever true, it hasn’t been for years.

    Like Newsweek, Marantz, Brooks Brothers, the Republican Party of the past is gone. The name lives on, but it is being used by a totally different type of entity.

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  13. Just nutha says:

    @Kathy: They do. So does leaving to make toast when the commercial comes on.

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  14. Just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: Perhaps intelligent religious conservatives understand that there is no point in discussing religious conservatism with people disinterested in considering it.

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  15. EddieInCA says:

    @MarkedMan:
    @CSK:

    100%

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  16. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    The only conservative viewpoint that is consistently absent is that of religious conservatives, but that viewpoint has long been absent from primarily intellectual forums regardless of political persuasion.

    We don’t have religious lefties or moderates here either — not of the wear your religion on your sleeve variety, definitely. The community here is a very narrow slice of America (and a few assorted foreign interlopers). It’s the better narrow slice, to be sure, but very narrow.

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  17. Scott O says:

    “ I’m open to arguments why Trump’s actions surrounding the 2020 election were actually within bounds”
    Are there any such arguments besides the serious nutcase variety?

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  18. Gustopher says:

    @Scott O: politics is a game of what you can get away with?

    That seems to be my brothers’ response after being told that their current lie is a lie. They will shift effortlessly from Q-tinged conspiracy theories to nihilism.

    At least Q is an ethos, and based on some sense of morality and needing to care for others.

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  19. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: With few exceptions, overt religion is rarely part of any intellectual debate. While the overtly religious can and do engage, they do so with arguments other than “jeebus tole me so”. For example, however religious MLK was personally, he never appealed to the broader public via those beliefs. It is obvious to all but the most religion obsessed that a discussion ends immediate if it starts out:
    First person: “My god says it is!”
    Second person: “My god says tisn’t!”

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  20. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: As is common, any disagreement is really about words.

    2a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : TRADITIONAL
    conservative policies
    b : marked by moderation or caution
    a conservative estimate
    c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners
    a conservative suit
    a conservative architectural style
    – merriam-webster.com

    As I’ve noted, perhaps ad nauseum, I often put “conservative” in scare quotes as a flag that it doesn’t necessarily mean what it’s supposed to mean. I tend toward conservatism being self defined. It’s what people who are generally called conservative practice. In our two party system, Republicans are called, and call themselves, conservative. De facto conservative = Republican. You go to war with the conservatives you have, not the conservatives you might want.

    Modern conservatism really is Cleeks Law, opposition to what liberals want today, updated daily. Although Corey Robin makes a good argument it was always thus.

    IIRC there’s an observation in political science that if you have a clearly dominant party, policy is adjudicated within the dominant party. Dems aren’t dominant, but GOPs have basically abandoned any serious debate on policy, leaving all serious policy discussion to be adjudicated within the Democratic Party. And this includes policy positions Merriam-Webster would regard as “conservative”.

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  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Yes, you do. And religious conservatives, too. Refer back to my prior comment as to why we stay (relatively) unnoticed.

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  22. Michael Cain says:

    As has often been noted, OTB is really unusual in that it began as a very Republican-leaning political site that managed, for a variety of reasons, to attract commenters from across the political spectrum. As the site hosts became more critical of—and ultimately left*—the GOP, most of the conservative commenters departed

    Interestingly, the site where I spend the most time — to the point of occasionally writing a post — could be described in much the same way. I miss some of the less-liberal commenters and posters there. The best of them could make me go back and look at my assumptions — to figure out what I actually knew, and what I only thought I knew. As best I can tell, the reason they drifted away — or in a couple of cases, were banned — is they reached the conclusion that while the Republican Party may be broken in some ways, it could be fixed. But the Democratic Party was broken in ways that could never be fixed, so must be opposed unconditionally.

    I admit that one of the reasons I hang out here is to see if the hosts ever make the jump. Not be just, “Well, I’m voting for the Democrat this time,” to “I identify as a Democrat because I think I have a better chance of fixing them than fixing the Republicans,” a point I reached by the end of the 1990s.

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  23. Fog says:

    Psychology is a very interesting topic. When I was (much) younger I seem to remember that there was something of an ethic regarding discussions, particularly those concerning politics or sports. Strongly expressed opinions were often met with the retort “Oh, yeah? You got a better idea?” The implication was that if you hadn’t studied the issue deeply enough to form your own opinion of what should be done, your criticism could be dismissed. The price of criticizing was having your own druthers being exposed to scrutiny as well. Unfortunately, most of our right-leaning commenters just drop a dookie and run. Pity.

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  24. A peek behind the curtain: new commenters get automatically put in moderation (this is why a typo in your moniker will get you moderated as well). Every time I see something in moderation (as I did today before reading this post) I am hopeful that maybe a new, interesting denizen is going to join the conversation.

    Alas, too often the comments are from people who are clearly not looking for a reasoned conversation. There was a new guy today who had three comments captured by the filter. He started his first missive by calling someone a “libtard” so, nope, not approved–what would be the point?

    Another of his comments, to my amusement, was using profanity to defend his “Christian values” on gender. I am not sensitive to such language, but find it ridiculous to drop f-bombs and the like in defense of Christianity. (I often wonder if these people are putting on an act).

    As I repeatedly have noted: life is too short and James and I have plenty else in life to keep us occupied to put up with jackasses that contribute nothing to the conversation.

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  25. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Another of his comments, to my amusement, was using profanity to defend his “Christian values” on gender.

    Jesus Fucking Christ…

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  26. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..Jesus Fucking Christ

    Reminds me of my retort to those who chastise me by saying “Damn is not god’s last name!”
    “You’re right. Damn is god’s middle name. God’s last name is it.”

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  27. Jay L Gischer says:

    F-bombs are far less taboo than they used to be, it seems to me.

    In the time before Covid, I was having lunch in a little burger joint (the best in town, but closed now 🙁 ). Two guys at another table were clearly talking about their Bible study, and they dropped a couple of F-bombs during the conversation, which seemed remarkable to me.

    However, it occurs to me that it is decidedly not “taking the Lord’s name in vain”.

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  28. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    You’re right. Employing scatology or obscenity isn’t taking the Lord’s name in vain. One has to use the Lord’s name in order to take it in vain.

    Saying “fuck,” on the other hand, is just dandy.

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  29. Assad K says:

    Interestingly, The Hill (which is at least center right, I believe?) has just closed its comment sections.

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  30. CSK says:

    @Assad K:
    I noticed that. If you ever read the comments, it was obvious why they closed them.

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  31. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Aha! I thought you moderated less than that and so couldn’t figure out why this blog had so far defied the odds. Actually glad to know that you are actively defending it.

    If I could suggest one thing it would be to focus more on the debates here in terms of small “c” conservatism rather than assume that since the person is not Republican they can’t be conservative. I think a lot of interesting liberal/progressive/conservative discussions occur here, amidst and in between the chatter. (And I’m not overly judging here. Sometimes I’m part of the interesting discussion and more often am happy to be part of the chatter.)

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  32. grumpy realist says:

    @Sleeping Dog: You’ve reminded me of an intellectual property blog, Patently-O, which is–or at least was–notorious for having absolutely top-notch articles (I read them for their legal analysis of Federal Circuit decisions) and a total swamp-mess of a commenting section. I never was able to figure out who in fact commented–the libertarian streak of many of them was obvious–but why would they be commenting in the first place?

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  33. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @CSK: @Jay L Gischer:
    Two (English) curses I heard frequently in my youth were my Grandma’s:

    “Judas Iscariot on Roller Skates!”
    and
    “Jesus H. Nixon Christ”

    The Norwegian curses I didn’t learn the English translations of until my college days.

    Grandma used to say that Nixon made a lying weasel in a suit look as honest as a Bellingham lawyer(?), but her comment about Judas left me with an odd visualization of the scene immediately after the Last Supper painting…

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  34. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    And a very late addition to this post, thanking our hosts for their efforts to keep the conversation thoughtful and on track. And to our commentariat for assisting in keeping the game pieces on the table (most of the time).

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  35. Ken_L says:

    the Republican-leaning commenters we’ve managed to attract in recent years tend to bring in tiresome social media talking points rather than engage in useful discourse

    If it’s any consolation, few other sites do any better, and many do a great deal worse. For example I’m frequently struck by the jarring contrast between Allahpundit’s thoughtful posts at Hot Air and the puerile, ad hominem comments that constitute most of the replies.

    The Hill closed its longstanding comments section last week. I don’t know if that’s what prompted Masnick’s post. The comments in question were overwhelmingly at the level of ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ or ‘Trump will end his days in prison’, i.e. vacuous insults of no conceivable interest to anyone who wanted to discuss a post. I’ve long believed the people who publish those kinds of comments do so with the deliberate intention of provoking conflict and preventing any sensible discussion from developing. I join with others in congratulating the owners here for keeping comments threads civil and constructive.

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  36. CSK says:

    @Ken_L:
    The Hot Air commenters will never forgive Allahpundit for criticizing their beloved Donald Trump.

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  37. grumpy realist says:

    @Ken_L: I always assumed that the bulk of the comments over at The Hill was contributed by pimply-faced 14 year old boys. That certainly was the ordinary level…or lower.

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  38. Paul L says:

    We couldn’t let a idiot woman like Palin be in the position to possible be President.
    Kamala’s harpy cackle.

    the value of comment moderation is the ability to maintain a

    Epistemic closure safespace hugbox /community not tainted by forbidden insulting, hurtful and toxic subjects that causes them distress by pointing their hypocrisy.

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